Jumpstarting a Dialogue?

We often hear about action for action’s sake, but how often do we act for the benefit of rhetoric?  Apparently, that’s what LA Mayor Villariagosa is saying regarding his attempt to take over LAUSD.  In today’s Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/education/la-me-lausd19may19,1,3072284.story?coll=la-news-learning&ctrack=3&cset=true) the LA Mayor talks about dropping his bid for takeover, rewriting history by saying his intent was to “provide a framework for dialogue.”

I’ll be the first to say that dialogue is good.  But I am a firm believer that you use rhetoric to advance action.  Pick the right words, the right spokespeople, and understand the right audiences, and you can drive the right action.  Nowhere is that more true than in education reform.  Our goal should not be talk.  Our goal should be to change public behavior (and improve student achievement) through effective communication.

I respect Villariagosa’s attempt to save face in what was a difficult situation.  But when we see the effectiveness of Bloomberg in NYC, or Fenty’s undeterred effort to take over DCPS, do we honestly think either the NYC or DC Mayors would be happy knowing that they had simply provided a “framework for dialogue?”  Of course not.

In the end of the day, Villariagosa forgot an important key to reform communications — build a strong cadre of supporters and advocates.  At times, it appeared he was fighting a one-man fight.  Fighting the school board.  Fighting the union.  Fighting just about anyone who stood for the status quo.  And at the end of the day, he paid the price.  A loss in court, a loss of stakeholder support, and ultimately a loss of public trust.

Lost in the discussion is the fact that LAUSD has some strong reforms they can boast of, particularly the recent successes of Green Dot Schools.  There, they have a reform focused on students and teachers, focused on academic success, and focused on strong communications and ally building in the community.  And its successes have helped it weather public rhetorical opposition from the unions and other sources.

The aborted takeover of LAUSD was a defeat for Villariagosa, no matter how he tries to publicly spin it.  But it teaches an important lesson to many of today’s education reformers.  Reform can’t be personal.  This isn’t about what a particular mayor, a particular superintendent, a particular corporate leader, or a particular researcher want.  As we have seen from LAUSD and from the Reading First and NCLB hearings, personalities can be torn down.  Individual personalities are easy targets.  Find a hole in their rhetoric, their background, or their public persona, and you can turn back their ideas. 

For such reforms to be truly successful, they need to focus on those who are being helped, those who are ultimately benefiting.  Instead of hearing what Villariagosa would do if he won and how he would change the school board and who he would hire, we should have been hearing about that child in Southcentral LA who would finally have that chance to succeed under a streamlined system.  Let’s hear how reform would impact the teachers and the students, not how it would bolster the power of the mayor.

Yes, LA can teach many of our urban districts a great deal.  Hopefully, Mayor Fenty is listening as he prepares to wage a public battle to get his school takeover plan through Congress.  Let’s hear how it will benefit DC schoolchildren and educators, and not how it will enhance the Mayor’s legacybuilding efforts.  In districts like DCPS and LAUSD, simply initiating a dialogue is not enough.  Communication without reform is simply talking to maintain the status quo.  Should that really be a goal … or an achievement to celebrate?

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